Monday, July 02, 2007

Coolidge, Lowell and the Photo Poem

I can’t shake the idea that Clark Coolidge’s Own Face, the first book from his so-called autobiographical turn, is to some degree an explicit attempt at an experimentalist’s version of the confessional poem. The whole book seems to reverberate with echoes of Robert Lowell.

I am not saying, of course, that the reflexive distinctions we might generate here—experimental vs. confessional—won’t largely hold; but it’s worth considering, if only to irritate those who like their distinctions clean-edged, that there are a number of similarities between Coolidge and Lowell. First off, both are pessimists (or, as the case may be, realists) who situate their poems amidst a culture in decline, post-industrial tableaux of rusting, abandoned factories, quarries and broken concrete structures. I’d even say that both flirt, at times, with a kind of nihilism. And, furthermore, their diction choices and rhythms (quite apart from the very different phrasal and grammatical arrangements) are strikingly similar: heavily Anglo-Saxon, long on consonants and consonance, pulsatile. Perhaps, the common point of departure here is Melville.


. . . Later I reel
in a yell as my cousin takes a bite from my shank
beneath ranchhouse breezy curtains of Marion. On a trudge up
from the gasoline rockpit in the gaze of Judy Lamb,
she carries my pack, my jeans rolled as I step on
pipe. . .

[“Album—a Runthru”]


I picked with a clean finger nail at the blue anchor
on my sailor blouse washed white as a spinnaker.
What in the world was I wishing?
. . . A sail-colored horse browsing in the bullrushes. . .

[“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” ellipses Lowell’s]

Indeed, although I don’t think I’d stake any kind of argument on this— (consider this a series of provisional mental sallies)—without a bit more to go on, there are at least two moments in Own Face that sound like explicit Lowell quotations. For instance, Coolidge’s “a burst the cleat of harp / mark vine wild to hog hill red fox Morman behind the Hilton. . .” seems to invoke Lowell’s brimming iambic line “A red fox stain covers Blue Hill” from his super-famous “Skunk Hour.” Of the same poem, compare these two stanzas:

One round night, I’ll term it that pulling
some depth on my cube. Far from starring the black
books holding meat, the babies that plow
down the chute, unable to grasp still
starring. Not apt to finish I’ll fix the sun
on lock. Then walk down the stairs
in the woods under lights.

[“The New Look Sways”]


One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . .
My mind’s not right.

Perhaps the title of Coolidge’s poem is meant to recall Frank O'Hara's comment about “Skunk Hour”, one that for all its drollery, doesn’t, in its revealingly genteel sense of decorum, actually do much to distinguish O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” from Lowell’s “I myself am hell.” The quote: “I don’t think that anyone has to get themselves to go and watch lovers in a parking lot necking in order to write a poem, and I don’t see why it’s admirable if they feel guilty about it. They should feel guilty. Why are they snooping?” If it is a poem about prohibited gazes, then Coolidge’s “black books holding meat” does much to physicalize the halo of shame which rings the voyeur’s object of desire.

The condition of the gaze, then, is where the two poets part ways. Both of them figure the poem, and the collection of poems, as photo and photo-album. But their takes on the enduring presence of the past, its accessibility or lack thereof, diverge sharply. For Lowell’s Life Studies, the dominant metaphor for memory is travel. The gaze slides into the past like a train crossing the Alps (“Beyond the Alps”) or a boat returning from Europe across the Atlantic (“Sailing Home from Rapallo”). Coolidge’s past is geological, not a destination to which one must travel, but an ossuary which one must sift through, a ruins, a geological record that only exertive, even exhaustive, labor will recover. Time in Lowell is transparent, extensive and empty. In Coolidge, it’s opaque, accretive, and intensive.

Still, despite these differences, the tone and stance of both poets, looking at an empire in decline, a senescent culture, the renewals of which are merely disguised ruination, is basically the same. Emptiness-meaningless and opacity-meaninglessness give way to the same sense of irreversible entropy (a metaphor that both poets find recourse to). In the end, though, Coolidge may have more of a future than Lowell (and I say this as somebody who thinks Lowell is an important and, among many of the poets I know and read, underread poet). His punning sense of the photo-album as a musical album, a "record" that can be played or even “covered,” that is performed may model a more active, less contemplative to our national ruination. This will constitute my only remarks about the day of singed flesh and gunpowder known as the 4th of July.

[*Funny that Kasey wrote something about Coolidge just yesterday, and with a similar polemical drift.]

1 comment:

Gabriel said...

jasper, that line isn't even iambic, let along brimmingly so:

Lowell’s brimming iambic line “A red fox stain covers Blue Hill"

or at least i don't read it like that.

n.e.way whatever. this comments like what 6 months after your post.